By MARSHA MERCER
The dramatic election of Democrat Doug Jones as a senator from Alabama was at once stunning and reassuring.
Stunning because it had been nearly 25 years since Alabama sent a Democrat to the Senate, and just last year Alabama embraced Donald Trump by nearly 30 points over Hillary Clinton.
Reassuring because it, along with last month’s Virginia election, showed our political system -- messy and rowdy as it is -- still works.
Trump’s winning the White House despite losing the popular vote last year led to lasting frustration and a sense of powerlessness among some Democrats. But in state and congressional races no Electoral College stands in the way of the popular will.
The message from voters in Alabama, Virginia and New Jersey this year was a resounding no to the benighted politics of the past.
“Decency wins,” Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, tweeted Tuesday night, one several Republicans who praised Alabama voters. Flake, who is retiring, had tweeted a picture of his $100 contribution to the Jones campaign.
Jones had been the lead federal prosecutor in cases against two Ku Klux Klansmen in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Baptist Church in Birmingham, which took the lives of four black girls. Jones won convictions in both cases in 2001 and 2002.
For Democrats who hope to turn back the Trump tide in congressional elections next fall, the Alabama contest was consequential. It shaves the Republican majority in the Senate to 51 to 49.
“This is a political earthquake,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, who heads Democrats’ 2018 Senate campaign effort. He cited as part of the earthquake the elections in Virginia and other states and localities.
Alabama answered the question whether black voters in the Deep South will turn out for a Democrat who is not Barack Obama. Yes, they can.
About 30 percent of Alabama voters Tuesday were black, and 96 percent of them voted for Jones, exit polls reported. That’s about the same share of the black vote President Obama received in 2012.
Solid-red Alabama suggests Democrats may be able to persuade more Southern whites to vote blue. Obama received just 15 percent of Alabama white vote in 2012; Jones got 30 percent.
And, perhaps more significant going forward, younger voters and suburbanites in Alabama decisively went for Jones.
Trump remains personally popular in some quarters -- Alabama voters approved and disapproved of him equally -- but he exhibited no coattails. His tweet and robocall endorsements were words in the storm of words.
After his gubernatorial candidate lost in Virginia, Trump lost twice in Alabama. He’d backed Moore’s competitor in the GOP primary, then fully endorsed Moore near the end of the campaign and attacked Jones.
When Moore lost, Trump dodged blame, tweeting he’d been right all along that Moore couldn’t win a general election. The “deck was stacked against him,” Trump tweeted.
More accurately, Moore had stacked the deck against himself.
Long before The Washington Post’s reports of allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore roiled the campaign last month, Moore had a history of judicial defiance and racist and homophobic comments.
He denied all the sexual misconduct allegations, and fewer than one in 10 voters said they were the most important factor in their vote, according to exit polls.
The splintering of the GOP also played a role in Jones’s victory, but it’s doubtful another candidate anywhere could engender as much bipartisan animosity as Moore.
The last Democrat who successfully ran for the Senate in Alabama was Richard Shelby in 1986, who was reelected in 1992. Two years later, he switched parties and still represents Alabama. But Republican Shelby couldn’t stomach his party’s candidate and announced he’d written in someone else.
It’s too soon to declare Trump irrelevant or Trumpism dead, but neither has the ruddy glow of health at the moment.
Trump tweeted his congratulations to Jones election night and called him the day after. Hoping to find an ally, he invited Jones to the White House.
Jones has promised civility and to work with Republicans when possible.
“The people of Alabama expect me to do the right thing and vote for the people of Alabama,” said Jones in a news conference. He faces the voters again in 2020.
©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.
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